While the sports world is filled with flamboyant, excitable and arrogant personalities who may rise like comets and then crash, it is refreshing to find a coach who prefers the tortoise vs. hare approach: slow and steady wins the race.
Oconomowoc High School had such a coach in Pat Neary, who retired last spring after 41 years with the school’s baseball program, including 27 years as head coach. Neary was also a social studies teacher at the school until his retirement from teaching in 2004. His wife Jody, a science teacher at OHS, retired the same year.
“He is a quiet, steady, faithful disciple of the Lord,” said Fr. John Yockey, pastor at St. Jerome’s in Oconomowoc, during a phone conversation with your Catholic Herald. “He is a good example of what Gospel living is all about.”
As a baseball coach, Neary was referred to as “legendary” in newspaper articles.
During his coaching career, Neary led his teams to the WIAA Division I state spring baseball tournaments six times. Only three Wisconsin schools have been to state more often. He’s also a member of the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.
Jim O’Leary, in his Inside Oconomowoc column in the Oconomowoc Focus, said, “Baseball legend Leo Durocher once said, ‘Baseball is like church. Many attend, but few understand.’ Pat Neary is like a pope.”
It’s fitting that O’Leary would use a religious reference when describing Neary, a lector at his parish for more than 30 years, since he is so highly regarded by his pastor.
“He takes his faith seriously, integrates it into his life and lets it form his day-to-day activities,” said Fr. Yockey. “He’s allowed the Lord to work through him.”
Yockey called Neary “wholesome” and “an outstanding Catholic man” who has had the respect of his students and student athletes throughout the years.
“He really is a role model,” said Fr. Yockey.
O’Leary attended all six games of Neary’s state tourney teams and always came away impressed.
“I wish everyone could have seen how well-behaved and well-received the OHS diamond-men were in hotels, restaurants, stores and parks,” wrote O’Leary. “They knew how to have fun. They knew how to conduct themselves. I never walked taller than when I was in the company of those teams.”
Neary knew that to get respect you needed to earn it.
“I’ve always felt strongly that teachers and coaches need to be role models, to walk the walk, talk the talk,” said Neary in a telephone conversation with your Catholic Herald. “In the game and off the field, that’s one thing I tried to do through the years.”
Neary, one of six children, grew up in Milwaukee around 12th and Capitol and attended Holy Angels Grade School and Messmer High School. His family moved to around 40th and Florist in 1965 and belonged to St. Albert Parish, a predecessor of today’s Blessed Trinity.
He played baseball at UWM, where he earned an undergraduate degree and master’s degree.
He moved to Oconomowoc in 1969 and met Jody, his wife, two years later while they were both teachers at Oconomowoc Junior High.
He and Jody have two children, Anne of Fox Point, a dentist who practices in Bayside, and Andy of Pewaukee, an insurance agent, and two grandchildren (Anne’s children), Connor, 6, and Molly, 14 months.
Neary does not brag, boast or put the spotlight on himself and Fr. Yockey and O’Leary are impressed by his humility.
“He doesn’t like fanfare,” said his pastor.
O’Leary noted that he always put his team above himself.
“It was always about the players and the game.… It was never about Pat,” noted O’Leary.
Fr. Yockey wrote a letter about Neary that he sent to the local newspapers, as well as a tribute for the church bulletin.
“I was writing as his pastor,” said Fr. Yockey. He added that it was really quite simple to figure out “what makes him tick.”
Fr. Yockey realized it was Neary’s faith that formed “his attitude and demeanor. His faith was at the core.”
He credits his parents for giving him a good foundation in his faith.
“It’s based on my family,” said Neary of his faith. “My parents, especially. I come from a strong Catholic family.”
Neary’s dad, a mailman, graduated from Messmer in 1938. His brothers and several aunts and uncles also went to Messmer. His mom graduated from Mercy High School.
He had nuns as teachers for 12 years, a Mass-going family and an extended family that embraced Catholicism.
“I was fortunate to be surrounded by that,” said Neary.
While Pat was growing up Catholic, his wife Jody was raised Lutheran.
They are an example of a successful mixed faith couple, Fr. Yockey said.
“I never wanted religion to be an issue in our marriage. We never had any major disagreements about religion or theology,” said Pat.
Jody attends Our Savior Lutheran Church in Oconomowoc.
In retirement, Pat and Jody spend more time with their two grandchildren. At least once a week, Pat spends a day with Molly.
“That’s been the highlight of my retirement,” said Pat, who loves to dote on his grandkids.
This will be the first spring in several decades he won’t be coaching baseball.
“That will be tough. I feel like a duck out of water,” said Pat.
He still keeps memberships in several baseball coaches associations and is doing some substitute teaching as well.
Neary received many accolades upon his retirement, including a proclamation from the City of Oconomowoc. But of all the tributes he’s received, Fr. Yockey’s letters to local newspapers and bulletin announcement touched him the most, he said.
”He was very kind in what he wrote,” said Neary, adding, “I have a lot of respect for Fr. John.”
In his bulletin tribute, Fr. Yockey summed up his impression of Neary: “His availability, his avid support of each of his players, his tenacity to hang in there and forge ahead, win or lose, didn’t just happen. They were Mr. Neary’s ways of living out the meaning of Holy Mass, which he faithfully takes part in Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, at our earliest scheduled Mass to boot!”